In April I had the good fortune to zoom with Justin Jannise just a few days before his debut poetry collection, How to Be Better by Being Worse, was released by BOA Editions, Ltd. A wonderfully meandering conversation ensued, featuring cameos by Dean Young, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, and Secretary of Transportation Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Case: So we're five days out. You're looking over your first book cliff. How are you feeling?
Jannise: I feel good. I can't even remember where I saw this, but I maybe it was on Twitter recently, like, Oh, you know that thing about being anxious before your book comes out. That's a thing, you know. And I read that and I'm like, oh no, am I not being anxious enough? Which I guess is a sort of anxiety. I don't know what I should be nervous about, like Amazon or Goodreads reviews?
Who do I know that’s going to read this? My mom’s going to read this. Who’s going to think they’re allowed opinions about my sex life?
Well, that I've been through very recently, and my mom did read it. She said she liked it. And part of me wanted to know a little bit more, considering some of the adult things that are in it, but then I thought, no, I'm just going to let her bring it up if she wants to. There are other members of my family who are mentioned in it. And I know my brother, for example, is reading it. He's my older brother, so he's going to pick on me about it anyway. And as far as strangers reading it, I feel like with poetry it’s just like you, wow, you read it! Like, you got all the way through it. Like, you hated it, but thank you for trying.
I have a question about the opening couplet of your book, an immediate question about trains, a practical/political question.
Do you have any ideas on how we can get Secretary of Transportation Mayor Pete Buttigieg to prioritize national high-speed rails?
This is a question! I'm not prepared in any way to answer it, but I appreciate that Mayor Pete is very publicly visible – of all the people who I know are in the cabinet. He’s on Meet the Press and he’s on CNN all the time and he’s always kind of, you know, unflappable, and very capable-sounding. But I haven’t heard him mention anything about trains. I don’t know why that’s not a priority.
I’m just so ready. I was like, we’ve got a gay guy in there and he’s going to get me a train. But, no.
Do you have a fear of flying?
I hate planes.
Me too. They make me sick. I can’t do anything but close my eyes and wait for it to be over. I can’t even sleep. But for some reason I can read on trains. When I lived in New York I got so much reading done on trains, and everyone’s reading there. The two big novels I’d see people reading on the train were The Help—which was really popular at that time, and people would sort of pull that book up to their face as if to say, Yes, I’m reading The Help—and then Fifty Shades of Gray, which people would read very discreetly…
It’s 7:00am, I shouldn’t be reading this.
On the way to drop my kids off at school… But is there even a single high-speed train in the US?
Not that I know of.
Okay, let me try to think as we go, because I want this train question to make it into the interview. Because of course Mayor Pete will read it and realize we’re right, that this needs to be addressed. …I was reading the new Best American Poetry, and I had a moment where I realized the wind was in so many poems, so many that end with wind. And I have wind in poems, it just sort of happens. And then trains! There are several poems that take place on trains or mentions them. Do you know why?
I don’t, but I’m really interested in the collective poet unconscious. We seem to drag things out every few years. Birds, of course. Icarus. And that’s one of the things I like most about editing, watching trends happen.
I was at Frost Place a couple summers ago and I read a poem, and afterwards another poet asked me what it looked like on the page. I told him it was in unrhymed couplets, and he was just like, Oh. And that was it, he didn’t say anything else, but his disappointment stuck with me, and then everything in the Gulf Coast pile was in couplets. All I could think was, What can we publish that is not in that form? And I’m almost sure now that I was unfairly sorting poems into two piles: poems in couplets, and poems not in couplets.
I was so ready for your Frost Place story to end with that poem being “Flamingosexual,” for you to be like, And then I turned it into a flamingo.
Oh my God, I wish! It was “An Extra Heart,” and I left it the way it was.
Speaking of “An Extra Heart,” I love how the images cascade on one another, like they’re listy without feeling like they’re lists. But I have to know who the drag queen is in this poem.
I think it may be an amalgamation. In the first season of Drag Race, which everyone makes fun of because the budget’s so low, Shannel’s dressed like Medusa and singing a Whitney song, and she takes off her wig but there’s nothing underneath. And that’s a no-no. You can only do that one time, because then you just look weirdly out of proportion, unless you’re a queen whose look revolves around being bald. I combined that with Roxxxy Andrews’s classic wig-underneath-wig moment.
I couldn’t stand Roxxxy, but I felt like I could handle her because Jinkx Monsoon could handle her. Then on All Stars…
Alaska might be my absolute favorite queen of all time. But I always feel like I have to apologize for her for having saved Roxxxy so many times. Though I honestly love when she threw a fit and was like, I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars. RuPaul always says you have to be vulnerable for people to fall in love with you, and that’s a weird kind of vulnerability, but she really had every right to believe that she’s going to win and they turned the tables on her.
…I’ve been thinking about the way drag and poetry overlap, especially in constructing the self and thinking about what a self-portrait is.
The persona poem and the self-portrait poem are forms I avoided for a long time, circling like a vulture because it seemed like everybody was doing it. In the persona poem you have to make things up, and I find it very challenging to make things up, which is maybe why I’m not a fiction writer. Like, I did go in drag as Adele, I didn’t make that up. But I don’t find it super interesting for a poet to approach the persona poem as just ‘me in another person’s voice.’ I’m much more interested in finding where the poet’s and the persona’s voices intersect.
…I don’t know if you want to talk about this or not, but I have to ask about your Hobart poem, “Dean Young.” Can you talk about changing the title of it in the book?
This poem was looking for a title for a long time. And I’ve been known to troll Dean Young’s poetry more than once. For example, I reviewed his latest book and felt like it deserved an honest response, which in summary was: Whatever happened to the much more tender voice of his first book? He’s always been smart and funny, but it’s as if somebody called the first book “sentimental” and he internalized that criticism to the point of writing – what? – twelve more books that all have different titles but are, from a certain distance, identical. The ending of my poem – “So far, nothing worth keeping” – was more a response to the poet’s work, the house he’s built, in other words, but not the builder himself. I’ve never learned from him, I’ve never even met him, but in workshops his name kept coming up as if I were one of his many imitators – and that bothered me enough to send me looking through all his poems for a meaningful kinship. The only place I found it was in his first book, which allegedly he’s disavowed, and nobody likes, but I think is amazing. In any case, when an editor read my poem more literally than I’d intended it – as if I had some nasty animus towards Dean Young the man, and not “Dean Young” the brand – I agreed to change the title. There’s a certain kind of absurdism that, to me, feels like a theme park with no lines, no waiting, and thus no suspense – not nearly as fun as you think it’ll be. Sure, I’ll buy a ticket, but an hour later I’m ready to leave.
Your poems aren’t surreal so as much as kitschy. It’s a flamingo neon lamp. It’s real but it’s campy, perfect but a little off.
That would’ve made a good blurb. But also, I think, who needs reality?
There’s something there, because of the conversations happening about what poetry is right now. What work is it supposed to do? And that question is severely complicated for me, because I recognize that poetry does a lot of good for communities, but personally I’m only asking poetry to help me feel less alone for a few minutes before going back to whatever. I find myself wondering, especially from a craft standpoint, what to prioritize.
Poetry keeps being summoned for all sorts of things, but we don’t know what it can do. It continues to find purposes on its own. But is it really the best way to solve a societal need? It’s not cold, hard cash, which is what most solvable problems need.
But to bring it back to the personal, because that’s maybe the only thing I can be an authority on, there are moments in the book where I’m processing things with my father, but, could therapy have helped? Could talking to him—which isn’t easy to do—have helped? Do I really have to write a book about my complicated relationship with my father? This issue is not going to be solved by poetry anytime soon. So if you care about something as much as you say you care about it on Twitter, maybe you should do some things that actually demonstrably help that cause or that situation. Stop trying to rationalize the fact that poetry, as D.A. Powell has said, is a thinly veiled excuse to lollygag. Poetry is a way to spend time – maybe to waste it if we’re being honest with ourselves. The truest or most comprehensive definitions of anything don’t get circulated very widely. Why? Because they’re a bummer.
I can’t begin to answer the question, “What is poetry right now?” Not because I don’t believe in poetry. I don’t believe in a “right now.” Show it to me. What I can say, however, is that on a molecular level poetry is all about what might happen. What might happen if we purposefully took a train in the wrong direction? What might happen if we celebrated our friendships with as much as pomp and ceremony as we celebrate our romances? What might happen if we stopped writing couplets – or (gasp!) stopped writing altogether for a whole year? What might happen if we gave up entirely on being “good” in all senses of the word? Real life can be way too complicated and dangerous for these experiments. When we insist that poetry must show us real life, we’re losing one of our best ways to get away from it. When we demand that poetry carry us away from all known versions of reality, we’re making a claim we can’t prove that poetry has nothing to teach us and will never add real value to our lives. What might happen if we chose to believe that, no matter what, we’re stuck with who we already are and what we already have? There are people who live that way. I bet they don’t read poetry.